Opinion

Thank God Israel Already Withdrew From Sinai

ISIS’ barbaric attack on a Sufi mosque is a striking reminder of why those who opposed Israel leaving Sinai were wrong – and why withdrawing from the West Bank is just as feasible and necessary

A candlelight vigil for victims of Egypt's deadliest attack by Islamic extremists in the country's modern history. The Journalists Syndicate, Cairo. Nov. 27, 2017
Amr Nabil/AP

The barbaric ISIS attack on a Sufi mosque in the Northern Sinai, in which over 300 worshippers, among them dozens of children, were killed, and hundreds more injured, is an occasion that might provide useful reflection for Israelis today. 

First, some context. For four years, terror has had free rein in the Sinai Peninsula.  A report by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy notes that since July 2013 "nearly a thousand security personnel have been killed in more than 1,700 terror attacks across Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula, with more than 200 security personnel killed this year alone."  

Egypt’s security forces have been unable to halt or even slow these attacks.  As Robin Wright, of the New Yorker, puts it: "For all his military acumen, [President] Sisi has been unable to protect his own people—or even his security forces." 

Egyptians walking past bodies following a gun and bombing attack at the Rawda mosque, west of the North Sinai capital of El-Arish, November 24, 2017.
STRINGER/AFP

The chaos in Sinai, even under the control of a leader with a low tolerance for democracy, should serve to chasten those in Israel who once enthusiastically and insistently urged the Jewish state not to give that piece of territory back to Egypt, as part of the 1978 Camp David peace accord

To his credit, the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin ignored those calls and understood that peace with Egypt was far more important to Israel and its people in the long term than the beautiful beaches and striking natural beauty of the Sinai and the expansionist nationalism of the growing Israeli right wing.

To be sure, the settler diehards wanted no part of this wisdom, and instead made a desperate and stubborn last stand at Yamit, in the Northern Sinai, near where the recent mosque attack took place. 

The Yamit protesters were not simply satisfied to express their desires to hold onto their settlement: They also barricaded houses, threw sand and burning tires on the IDF soldiers who had come to evacuate them.  Some protesters even threatened a mass suicide. 

April 1982 evacuation of Yamit, in the northern Sinai
Ouzi Keren

Indeed, 30 years after the 1982 withdrawal from Sinai, some still thought of the settlements as a "lost paradise." Analysts later wrote of the trauma of the withdrawal from Sinai, calling it 90 per cent of the "territory Israel had liberated during the 1967 Six-Day War."  They cited the "strategic depth" the peninsula provided Israel, and the oil fields that would help assure energy independence.

But with the wisdom that comes from hindsight, we learn much and how wrong those settlers and their apologists were. 

The fact that Sinai is now a haven for chaos and Islamism, that its citizens (the same ones who would have been under the control of an occupying Israel had there been no withdrawal) are alienated from Egypt, that the Israeli peace with Egypt has withstood regime change and the Arab spring, that Israel has far more energy independence from its vast natural gas fields than it would have had from the Alma oil fields in Sinai, and that there are thankfully no Israeli settlements there which would be subject to the same brutal attacks that we see taking place now - all this should chasten those who claim territorial withdrawal, as a result of a peace agreement, does not promise security. 

I am sure there will be those (mostly from the political right and settler communities) who will counter my argument by saying that under Israel’s controlling authority, Sinai would never have become so lawless.

Yet the essential problem there of a Bedouin population that feels distant and alienated from the governing forces, that is not included in the state benefits that they feel they should share, and that lives by its own rules and traditions, would be no different under the Israelis, as we can see with how poorly Israel’s relations with and governance over some Bedouin tribes in the Negev has deteriorated. 

The locals in Sinai would surely not be any more satisfied by the gated and fenced off Jewish settlements, luxury hotels, and tourist groups that would populate Sinai under Israel than they are with the Egyptian version of Sinai.  Indeed, if Israel were still in Sinai, the marauders and terrorists would then also have the moral support of the Muslim world for their struggle and efforts to sow chaos.

Tel Aviv's city hall lights up with the Egyptian flag after a terror attack killed over 230 people in Sinai, November 25, 2017.
Screenshot / @MayorOfTelAviv / Twitter

Israel today should be pleased with the decisions its leaders in the 1980’s made to get out of Sinai as part of the Camp David Accord. It is a lesson worth remembering when we hear settlers in the other territories occupied after 1967 warning that any withdrawal would not bring peace or security but only trauma. 

It is a reminder that peace agreements can and do work – and however cold a peace is, it is better than its absence. Two states for two peoples is still the best plan there is, and history has shown us, in Sinai, how it can work. Sinai’s troubles are Egypt’s to solve; Palestine’s problems could be Palestinians’ to solve. Let Israelis learn that.

As for those who say that God has sent us a message that the land is ours by the victories of 1967 and 1973, they should consider that perhaps God has sent another message. He likes to use Sinai as a locus for sending messages to the Jewish people. That new message is: sometimes territorial withdrawal, not conquest, is what He wants, for peace deserves its day.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York